Last of the Boogeymen: A Tribute to the Great Christopher Lee

Louisville Halloween pays tribute to the last Classic Horror icon, Christopher Lee, and recalls his most essential genre roles in a career that spans nearly seven decades!

“My revenge has spread over centuries and has just begun!”

– Count Dracula, “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (1973)

The Lord of the Vampires rages to his nemesis, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), in Christopher Lee’s last of seven Dracula films made for Hammer Studios in England over a 15 year period. The quote seems appropriate, as Lee’s iconic turn as the vampire count will certainly be appreciated long after the celluloid used to capture his performance has turned to dust.

Ironically, it was one of the few sequels to the terrifying “Horror of Dracula” (1958) in which Lee actually agreed to speak any dialogue at all, choosing to most often play the blood thirsty count completely mute because the scripts sent to him were, in his opinion, laughably terrible.

I won’t, at this time, argue the wisdom of Sir Christopher Lee.

Knighted for his contribution to the theater and the arts in 2009, Lee represented the last living legend of the Classic Horror genre in a Rogues Gallery that included Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Sr. & Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Loree, John Carradine and Donald Pleasence.

He played dozens of iconic characters during his career, including Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu and Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’sLord of the Rings” trilogy, but horror fans will probably remember him best for his sinister and monstrous roles for Hammer Studios and Amicus Productions in England.

I certainly will never forget his sudden entrance in a pivotal scene in “Horror of Dracula,” bloodshot red eyes glaring, fangs bared in feral rage as one of his vampire brides dares attempt to feed on his intended next victim. Nor will I forget the pre-adolescent shot of adrenaline coursing through my veins at the climax of the local TV broadcast of the very same film when Peter Cushing’s stalwart Professor Van Helsing is fighting for his life against the savagery of Lee’s Dracula. In a last, desperate attempt to survive, Van Helsing makes a swashbuckling leap from a castle table to the lush curtains at the end of the room, letting the morning sunlight pour into the room and burning the vampire lord to cinders!

Wow, that was a formative moment in my life as a horror fan.

In his later years, his fans who also spent their formative years watching his movies grew up to be filmmakers that ended up casting him in their own movies. Tim Burton first brought him back to the attention of horror fans in a small part playing against Johnny Depp in “Sleepy Hollow” (1999). Then Peter Jackson cast him in the critical villainous role of Saruman the White in his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and George Lucas cast him as Sith Lord, Count Dooku AKA Darth Tyranus, in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Defying both age and convention, Lee also became something of a heavy metal rock star in the final years of his life, lending his deep, baritone voice to several symphonic metal albums like “Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross” and its sequel album, “Charlemagne: The Omens of Death,” the success of which awarded him “The Spirit of Metal” Award in the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards.

He may have shuffled off his mortal coil, but the legacy of Christopher Lee will certainly rise from the grave to terrify and entertain film fans for centuries to come. Let’s look back at some of the horrifying highlights of three quarters century of his boogeyman career.


1) “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957): This film represents Hammer Film’s first Technicolor reboot of the classic Universal Monsters catalog, bringing Gothic Horror back to cinemas in the wake of the new science fiction/flying saucer craze of the 1950’s. Hammer’s monster films were gorier and sexier, more dangerous and adult oriented, than Universal’s monsters even at the outset. This is the film that introduced a legendary film career collaboration with fellow British actor, Peter Cushing, who plays Victor Frankenstein against Lee’s grotesque version of the monster. Eschewing the more sympathetic portrayal of the monster conjured by Boris Karloff, Lee’s monster is a deformed, rampaging savage.

2) “Horror of Dracula” (1958): At first aristocratically charming, and then animalistically barbaric, Lee’s Dracula remains the most terrifying portrayal of the bloodthirsty vampire ever put on film. In fact, it very nearly typecast him for life. This film is the pinnacle of collaborations with Peter Cushing, who plays the heroic Dr. Van Helsing in pursuit of Lee’s Transylvanian bloodsucker. Masterfully directed with atmosphere to spare by Terence Fisher and with an unforgettable score by James Bernard, this is the vampire film to end all vampire films.

3) “The Mummy” (1959): Lee plays almost this entire film wrapped in ancient bandages as Kharis, perhaps the most athletic mummy ever to plague archeologists anywhere. Peter Cushing is back in the heroic role, and the production is up to early Hammer Films’ high standards. Lee suffered several injuries crashing through wooden doors and glass windows in this energetic horror thriller.

4) “The City of the Dead” (1960) AKA “Horror Hotel”: Glenn Danzig wrote a Misfits song about the title bed and breakfast referred to in the American release of this British, black-and-white chiller. Lee plays a college professor who may have a sinister connection with a witches’ cult in the quaint town of Whitewood. One of best (and one of foggiest) movies ever made about witchcraft and devil worship.

5) “The Skull” (1965): One of my favorite Amicus films, a British competitor to Hammer Films at the time, “The Skull” again pairs Lee and Peter Cushing as two competing collectors of ghoulish memorabilia who both seek to obtain the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade.

6) “Rasputin: The Mad Monk” (1966): Not entirely a horror film, but certainly a sinister historical thriller, Lee gives one of the best performances of his career as the seemingly immortal, Svengali-like Grigori Rasputin. Lee is captivating here as a lusting, boozing, controlling mystic.

7) “The Devil Rides Out” (1968): Another supernatural Hammer Horror thriller based on a Dennis Wheatley novel, in this film Lee gets a rare chance at playing the good guy! Here he plays occult scholar, Duc de Richleau, who must do battle with Satanic coven leader, Mocata (Charles Gray). In the film’s climax, Lee must protect his friends within a magic circle from supernatural attacks and demonic spirits.

8) “Horror Express” (1972): Climb aboard the trans-Siberian express to weirds-ville! Lee and Peter Cushing (again!) play two British anthropologists aboard a freight train traveling through the frozen wastelands of Manchuria to Europe carrying a cargo that includes a frozen, hairy creature that might be the missing link and may also have the power of mind control! Co-staring Telly Savalas, this is one of Lee’s strangest and most frightening films.

9) “The Wicker Man” (1973): Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the master of a nature cult, and a role that Lee claimed to be the favorite of his entire career. A strange and unforgettable masterpiece of horror, “The Wicker Man” is one part police investigation, one part musical and one part cult film. Edward Woodward plays a police constable who travels to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl and encounters a strange nature cult preparing for the celebration of May Day. If you’ve never seen it, don’t read anything further regarding the plot. Just prepare to meet the Wicker Man.

10) “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974): It’s Christopher Lee VS James Bond! Lee plays the world’s most lethal assassin, Scaramanga, who appears to have 007 in his crosshairs as his next victim. Roger Moore plays Bond in this series entry, who is taken off his current assignment when a threatening package including a golden bullet is sent to MI6. Bond is forced to find Scaramanga before he meets the business end of Lee’s golden gun. A final pistol duel ends in Scramanga’s bizarre funhouse.

Just the tip of his thespian iceberg, Lee appeared in hundreds of films and television programs, but these ten classic films along with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, make up a pretty good summery of his boogeyman career. As much as I generally loath the “Star Wars” prequels, I can’t quite deny myself the absurd joy of watching Christopher Lee engaging in a light saber duel with Yoda!

Louisville Halloween salutes the King of Vampires, the Prince of Darkness, the one and only, Sir Christopher Lee.

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